Arroz con Leche and a Danish Christmas Story

“I love the flavor of arroz con leche!” I often hear my daughter shout from our kitchen, after she’s gotten home from school. In Cuba, it has become a regular afternoon snack, especially after I learned how easy it is to make. It utilizes one of the few canned goods that we can reliably find in Cuba, sweetened condensed milk, and a few other basic items that we always have in stock. 

What I also like about arroz con leche is that it’s so international. I first fell in love with rice pudding in Copenhagen, where my husband and I once spent a holiday season with our friends Hannah and Carsten. Danish people are some of the nicest (and happiest) people in the world, and they have some amazing culinary traditions. Hannah and Carsten invited us to stay in their home one December, after hearing that we were coming to town, so my husband could attend a climate change conference. Over the week, we ate some of the best food we’d ever tasted: delicious smoked herring, nouveau Scandinavian dishes with Italian influences like pastas and risottos, and of course, loads and loads of Danish pastries laden with fruit preserves and various nuts. One of the nights before we left, Hannah and Carsten had a party in their home. Aside from a huge, literal smorgasbord of sandwiches they also served a traditional Christmas rice pudding that came with a game. They placed an almond in the pudding and doled out the dessert into various dishes. The person who ended up with the almond won a small treat. I can’t remember what the treat was, but I am sure it was delicious.  

Cubans also serve rice pudding for the holidays. I’m planning on sneaking an almond into our pudding the night before Christmas so our kids can play the hunting-for-the-almond game too. If you’re scrambling for a last minute dessert option, there’s no need to look any further. It will only take about half an hour of active time — plus the time it will take for your kids to find the hidden almond. 

Cuban-Danish Arroz con Leche

1/2 cup white rice
5 cups water
2 good-quality cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 14oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 whole almond

Boil the rice with the water, cinnamon sticks, and salt in a large stockpot. When it begins to boil, add the condensed milk and stir. Reduce the heat to medium and boil for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Before removing the pudding from heat, drop one whole almond into the mixture and stir until it is no longer on the surface. Allow it to cool at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving it with a sprinkle of ground cinnamon.